Category Archives: Thinking about feeling

Habits of the anxious mind

We all see reality through the filters of our beliefs. We interpret experience in-line with what we already believe, we pay attention to things that fit with what we already think, and ignore or explain whatever doesn’t fit. This is often necessary because there’s too much information coming into our little minds, and this helps us deal with it. Obviously there are downsides.

A mind suffering with anxiety filters all experience through the assumption that things are dangerous. It will see threats where other minds would not. It hears criticism and setback, hazard and risk. This is often because the anxious mind has previously been overloaded with stress and/or trauma and is acting in a perfectly reasonable way to try and protect itself. It cannot see the world as anything other than hostile.

Anxiety may well have shattered a person’s ability to believe in themselves and have confidence in their skills and abilities. This means that the slightest setback or criticism can look like disaster to an anxious mind. It’s also why a response that tells off the anxious mind for overthinking and panicking actually makes things worse. It can simply confirm to the anxious person that they are stupid, over-reacting, useless. The anxious mind can latch onto that criticism instead and see themselves as a failure.

It is not easy for an anxious mind to consider the evidence in a non-anxious way. However, stopping and having a good look at a situation – however scary that seems – does help. Affirm to yourself that you are not irrational – there are perfectly good reasons why you feel as you do. From there, it’s that bit easier to just consider whether your perfectly good reasons are totally applicable in this situation. A tiny margin of uncertainty can make a lot of odds, and thus can allow a bit of reconsideration. Was it meant that way? Is it definitely doomed? Well, maybe not, and the uncertainty allows a tiny step down from the panic.

When any single way of relating to the world becomes normal, it’s really hard to challenge and change it. Be that fear, or depression, entitlement, arrogance, or a belief that your positive thinking will make everything magically come out for the best. It is not an easy thing to notice the mechanics of your own thinking, much less to change them, but it is possible. If you can’t make reasonable predictions about what’s happening around you, the odds are you have a dysfunctional filter of some sort. The emotions you most often feel will indicate what sort of filter you have running.


Reclaiming my intuition

The trouble with intuition, is that some people will use it to replace evidence in a way that cannot be argued with. The experience of people magically ‘knowing’ things that from where I was standing, looked like utter bullshit, left me reluctant to use my own for many years. I’m equally troubled by the way we use confirmation on social media ‘I have a bad feeling about today, does anyone else?’ Of course someone else does – the internet has a lot of people on it. I’m wary of how we can all use ‘intuition’ to tell us the things we want to hear, to affirm our biases, prejudices, personal insanity…

But life without intuition is thinner, paler and missing a lot of tricks. We absorb far more information than we can consciously process, and what emerges as a ‘gut feeling’ may not be ‘magic’ but instead the result of unconscious processing. If I let myself, then some of my best thinking happens this way.

How do you tell if what you’ve got is intuition, self indulgence, or madness? This is a question I’ve been asking myself for years. It’s especially loaded for me, because depression and anxiety create feelings of doom and misery, and I can persuade myself that I must be psychically knowing that something dreadful is going to happen, and spiral down into it, and make it a self-fulfilling prophecy. Or I can attribute it to dodgy brain chemistry and let it go… How do I tell which is which?

The only thing I’ve got as a method of testing, is whether I can use it to make fair models of what will happen. If my gut feel about a person, or a situation, fits in fairly well with what happens, then regardless of whether that’s psychic-ness or unconscious processing, I’ve got something I can use. If my impressions don’t relate to reality, then something less helpful is going on. It requires an uneasy amount of self-honesty. Who doesn’t want to be magical, intuitive and special? It’s hard to look at a gut feeling and say ‘you aren’t real, my brain chemistry is playing up’ but sometimes that’s the path to sanity.

Then there’s the question of how we use intuitive insights in social situations. Some people are assholes. If that’s where you’re coming from, then aggressively asserting intuition as a means to power, to subdue or impress others, is just asshattery. It’s not good to go deliberately trying to poke around in other people’s heads and lives, either. It’s an invasion of privacy. If insight just turns up, then there’s a responsibility to use that kindly, and not as some kind of power trip.

I’ve spent some years now trying to be more open to my unconscious mind, to insight and intuition and at the same time to not let my depressive and anxious tendencies latch onto it. I’ve got a way to go, and I’m a long way from entirely trusting myself, but overall I like the trajectory.


Anything can be a teacher

Anything can be a teacher. Sometimes the lessons are all about moving away and holding boundaries, and those lessons can be urgent and unsettling. At the time of experiencing them, there’s not a lot of motivation for gratitude – which I think is reasonable and healthy. There’s a time and place for gratitude, and it isn’t during the period of being kicked in the shins!

Last year brought lessons. At the time, those lessons hurt, but I’ve noticed this year that I have, to a significant degree, made peace with it all. I’ve had self esteem issues all my life, I’m motivated to please others (unrepentantly so) and thin skinned. It means if someone decides to pick on me, I can get hurt. In my past there are people who knocked me down repeatedly and I struggled to get up, and it took a lot of time to recover from each round…

Last summer I faced character assassination, and attacks on self and life that could have broken me. I have no doubt that the intention was to do me as much damage as possible. But, the process was so full-on that I didn’t go along with it. Unusually for me, something kicked off inside me, refusing to accept the assessments of who I am, refusing to accept that it was ok for the people involved to be doing and saying what they did. Rather than internalise it as my failing, I took a long hard look at a whole bunch of people and decided that the problems were theirs and not mine, that I didn’t need them in my life, and that I didn’t have to be broken by them.

In the months since then, I’ve not regretted anything that I’ve done, and I’ve not regretted the loss of people who clearly considered me a nasty misuse of space. I feel lighter, freer, and happier. I’ve learned to hold my edges when attacked. I’ve come to feel a certain amount of gratitude for the experience that pushed me into being more willing to stick up for myself and no longer willing to internalise other people’s shit. It’s been a good learning experience, for me.

I know if I’d tried to respond with gratitude for the lessons at the time, it could easily have locked me into a place of hurt and reinforced the wrong things. Gratitude has its time and place, and sometimes distance is important. I can look back and see how far I’ve come, and while I don’t forgive the attempt to clip my wings, I am glad that I saw it fast enough to fly from the would-be clippers and not go back. With the right timing, gratitude can be a helpful part of letting go and moving on, leaving a person feeling empowered and enabled by the experience. Even if the experience itself was entirely shit.


Thinking about mental illness

How we think about mental illness, collectively, informs how a person who is suffering is able to behave. If we treat mental distress as something to be got over by ‘pulling yourself together’ or as not a real illness, then people suffering have little choice but to slog on, right up until they can’t.

I’ve found from personal experience over the last year, that if I draw direct lines between what I’m experiencing and some kind of bodily ailment, that I can make better choices about how to deal with it. What I’m going to offer here is crude and limited, but I hope it will work as a place to start.

A mild dose is like having a cold. It will probably clear up on its own in a fairly short time frame and it is possible to keep going and do all the things, although I’ll feel shitty and demoralised. Some time off would speed recovery.

A more serious bout is like having the flu – I really am going to need some time off to recover, I won’t be able to keep going as usual. It could knock me about for a few weeks and I’ll need to take things gently.

At its most serious, it’s like having pneumonia. There’s no way to keep going as usual, serious interventions, including medication and hospitalisation can be a consideration. Like pneumonia, serious depression can and does kill people and needs treating with just as much caution.

One of the important things about relating depression and anxiety to physical ailments is that it moves us towards treating the whole process as a bodily condition. I find this incredibly helpful. It’s not a failing, or a lack of will, or insufficient effort, any more than getting the flu is those things. Care and attention are required for recovery, but recovery is possible. For those who are afflicted in the longer term, other bodily analogies may prove more helpful.

Fevers are a useful analogy because when feverish, we can think all kinds of odd things that we wouldn’t believe for a moment when well. We can see and hear things that are illusionary. A breakdown in mental health can have a person thinking and believing all kinds of unhelpful things. If you can hold onto the notion that what’s happening may be a lot like the flu, it’s possible to avoid believing that the fever dreams of anxiety are based in reality. If depression and anxiety are things that are happening to you, not things you are, then it’s a good deal easier to resist them.


Poor Little Me

The Poor Little Me is a character from Hopeless Maine, inspired in part by Eliza Carthy’s song ‘Me and Poor Little Me.’ I started wondering what a Poor Little Me would be like, and thinking about possible examples. It’s a really unpleasant way of being, but in a rather passive-aggressive kind of way.

The PLM says ‘oh, poor you, that’s so bad, you must feel terrible. That must be awful, I bet its really getting to you, you must hate it, you must really be struggling there.’ At first it sounds like sympathy, and when we’re hurting, sympathy is welcome. After a while it sounds like pity – because they do it a lot, at very little provocation. Given long enough exposure, and it sucks out confidence and power, and you become this frail, useless thing and they become the big, powerful thing. Poor you.

Of course we can do it to ourselves as well – if we’ve internalised those voices, or we like to wallow too much. There are times when a good dose of ingratitude and self pity are necessary for getting life into perspective and taking action. The problem is taking up residence there. If you look at everything and see how it could have gone better and say ‘poor me’ for what you didn’t get, you’ll talk yourself into victimhood, despair and dysfunction.

In terms of dealing with the PLM as an inner voice, noticing it happening is key, and then challenging it. It’s important to deliberately look for the good in things as well as seeing what’s awry, this balance is essential to decent mental health. Often the destructive voices that live in our heads come from other places, so identifying whose voice it is can help with an eviction process.

In terms of having a PLM in your life, again noticing is key, because it will be offered in the guise of kindness and they will be ever so nice to you as they tell you how ghastly your life is. It’s very hard to protest or resist. The only method I’ve found is to step back. If rumbled, a PLM can become nasty – far more distressed that you could see them that way than they will ever be by the idea that they were making you uncomfortable.

How do we avoid becoming a PLM? Watch out for pity. Sympathy in a time of crisis can be supportive, but if it’s all we offer, it sounds like pity, and it also focuses the recipient on their woes. Make the effort to go further, offer something positive, encouraging or helpful alongside your sympathy. Act to empower the people you’re dealing with. Empty sympathy noises are easy – which is why we make them, so becoming damaging to someone else may be more about laziness than malice. Empathising and working out what could change things is a good deal more useful.

PLMing may happen to silence another person, perhaps with a feeling of justification because they keep going on about their woes. Yes, it’s terrible, poor you, you can shut up about it now. When it happens for those reasons, it doesn’t solve problems, or tackle a PLM living in someone else’s head, and it can isolate people who really are in trouble.

And if you’re curious about the PLM as a character, do click through to this blog post – https://hopelessvendetta.wordpress.com/2017/01/27/salamandra-and-the-plm/


The logic of emotion

We tend to think of emotion as inherently irrational, and thinking as holding the scope for logic and reason. However, emotion is basically body chemistry. It is a series of chemical events in response to whatever’s going on and if we knew all the details, we could no doubt express emotion as chemical equations.

Many things impact on our emotions – our blood sugar, circadian rhythms, exposure to sunlight, our physical health, events we experience etc and of course what we think about those experiences. There’s a straightforwardness to this. A person who has gone too long without food, a person who is too cold and wet, will feel lousy.

However, rather than taking our emotions at face value, and dealing with them, we tend to get our minds involved. Often, the impulse is to blame someone else and take out negative feelings on them. The low blood sugar becomes ‘you never listen to me’ or somesuch. Good experiences can leave us with all kinds of crazy stories about worth, meaning, and entitlement.

Unlike our emotions, our minds are capable of incredible, creative irrationality. We can imagine and wonder. We look for explanations, patterns, causes, and we can be persuaded that correlation is causality. We can be persuaded of all kinds of illogical, unreasonable, unsubstantiated things. By way of evidence for this, I offer you social media, fake news, and rather a large percentage of religious activity. We think our minds are rational, but we’re persuaded by emotive fact bending, by blame and shame, hate and anger, the desire to get one back against some imagined infringement. We don’t think logically.

Emotions are like weather systems – not always good, or useful, but a physical reality caused by complex influences. There is a logic to them. We have the means to change our internal weather, and the choice of what meaning to apply to it. If we treat our emotions like weather, we can take them seriously (sun hat or wellies today?) while recognising that none of them are permanent. They are the truth of our body existing in the world, they are not inclined to lie to us, although we can develop weird feedback loops if the mind gets too involved.

Treat the mind as something with the potential for irrationality, and things change. The assumption that an apparent line of logic proves something, becomes a good deal less convincing. The interplay between mind and emotion becomes more visible. If we ignore what our emotions are trying to tell us and let our minds make up explanatory stories, we can end up in all kinds of muddles.

Sometimes, it’s just indigestion. Sometimes it’s just that there hasn’t been enough sun lately.


Seasonal Blues

It is a perfectly reasonable, human thing to struggle with the winter. The shorter days, often with far less sunlight mean those of us in the northern part of the earth are short of vitamin D. Some of us suffer seasonal affective disorder. For some, the cold, the treacherous footing, and the dark nights are a downer. This is the first year in ages where those dark nights haven’t been a real barrier to me having a social life, and that’s in no small part because I’ve now frequently got things to do of a Sunday afternoon.

For anyone whose finances are tight, winter adds extra pressure – for some it means a choice between heating and eating, for some even that choice isn’t available. This is an unkind season, an isolating season, a killing season. Many people roll out of the festive period into the harsh reality of increased debt at the start of the New Year.

I often find there’s a backlash after midwinter festivity – yes, in theory the light is returning, but it seems a long way off, it still gets dark early, it’s still cold, there are a good two months of this to come… but now there’s nothing much to look forward to. The feeling that it should be getting easier can contribute to actually feeling worse about it.

I’m luckier than many people because there are viable solutions for me. I can add colour, warmth and light as needed. I do now have the resources – financial and energetic – to connect with people at this time of year. I have places I can go and things I can do. But I’ve also been on the other side of this, cut off, cold, stuck, and without the resources to change any of it. That’s not a good place to be. If you know someone who could be isolated by this time of year, drop them a line, call them, if it makes sense to show up, show up. It can be a lifeline – in a practical sense and also emotionally.


In search of perfect indulgence

Perfect indulgence satisfies a craving without creating new problems of its own. It feels like a treat, it gives pleasure to body, mind and /or soul, but there’s no ghastly price tag. The problem often is that when seeking indulgence, what we get is excess and the unpleasant consequences of excess instead. Here in early January, watching people I know on social media talking about the need to detox, rest their livers and deal with the impact on their waistlines, it is clear that for many, winter festivities meant excess, not indulgence.

Taken at face value it seems like a no-brainer that we’d avoid indulging to the point where it instead becomes a source of misery. Speaking as someone who has been drunk enough to fall off their own shoes, I’m all too aware it doesn’t work like that. We think we’ll get away with it. We don’t recognise when we’ve reached the high point and tipped over into something else. We think there’s more fun to be had. No one goes out with the intention of drinking until they throw up.

There’s also, I think, an issue that the more insufficiency we feel, the more likely we are to go for excess rather than indulgence. As though the accumulated feeling of need can be answered in a single binge session. A better pattern of ongoing good stuff means less getting into the desire to surfeit. On the whole, lots of small bits of good are of more use than a lot of rather narrow living and a big splurge. Of course there can be financial patterns underpinning this, with the need to cut back after the splurge creating the desire for the next one.

Joy, jollity, fun – we may be inclined to think that these are things to do spontaneously, with a carefree spirit and no counting of the costs. However, like everything else in life, it works better with a bit of reflection and self knowledge. A bit of canny balancing can make your indulgences go a long way, and keep the costs minimal. A lie in until eight or nine at the weekend feels blissful to me, and leaves me most of the day to do other things. Get up at lunch time, groggy, and the day can be a write-off.

If your acts of indulgence leave you feeling horrible afterwards, you’re doing it wrong. It’s taken me long enough to properly figure this out! Other options exist aside from binges, and those other, more measured approaches can deliver a lot more fun for your money, and don’t come back to bite you the next day. Binges don’t solve underlying needs, they don’t fill empty holes in the self, they don’t compensate us for lives that are otherwise drab and unsatisfying. A pattern of binge and starve, over-extend and recover, splurge and pay of the debt can lock us into cycles where we never get to feel like we’re ahead, never really get to feel good about things. The less good we feel, the more attractive the binge becomes. Break the cycle, and the scope for having a good time more of the time actually improves.


Lessons from 2016

I’m a big fan of pausing now and then to review my experiences so that I can see what there is to be learned. The end of a calendar year is a very obvious point at which to do this. Normally I review things on a day to day basis, but some patterns and lessons only really emerge when a bigger time frame is considered.

2016 delivered a run of intensive lessons about how I value myself, and how I act based on that value. For too long, I’ve been over-grateful for any kind of place to be involved, any sense of being wanted, or useful, or tolerated. In practice this has made me vulnerable to people who want to use me, and has put me in places that don’t give me what I need. At a less unpleasant level, it has also put me in places of half-heartedness and lack of commitment, and those don’t suit me either.

What I need, above and beyond all else in terms of work and community is the emphatic ‘Yes’. I need the people who are wholehearted about wanting me in the mix and who will accept my wholehearted and serious commitment. Situations that want me half-hearted, not too intense, and so on, crush me over time. I have realised that if I assume nothing better is available, then I won’t be looking for anything better. This year I started looking for the social spaces that give me an emphatic yes. I’d come to think of my marriage as a little bubble of difference, a unique space that I couldn’t hope to replicate in terms of the feeling of being valued, accepted and inspired. It’s not just us, I just needed to learn how to look, and to believe it was worth looking.

For a couple of years now, working at Moon Books part time has been an absolute joy, because that’s a space where my energy, ideas, innovation and efforts are valued and trusted. I love that work, and it has become the measure for other things I take on with other people (measuring everyone against Tom would seem unfair). If it’s not as good as Moon Books, if I’m not as excited about it, if I’m not working with people who are that fired up… why would I bother?

What I’ve found is that spaces, and people are becoming more available to me. I want to do the work that only I can do. I want to do work that is needed and valued. I want to spend my spare time with people who are delighted to do that, not with people who grudgingly accommodate and find me difficult. 2016 has taught me that I can have those things, and I don’t need to waste any more of my time on half-hearted nonsense.


In search of a lost, manic pixie

There’s a concept in a lot of shamanist traditions, of soul retrieval. The idea that bits of us get lost along the way – often in a context of trauma – and that we need help to bring those parts of soul back. I’m not a shaman. I’ve felt for a long time that I had indeed lost vast swathes of my identity. Go back six years or so and I had no idea who I was, what I felt, or thought, wanted or needed. I’ve spent years rebuilding, and looking for tools for rebuilding.

One of the things I’ve done is to look back at who I was at a time when I felt that I recognised myself, and made sense to myself. I can’t be who I was at any point previously, but it gives me some guidance for working out what I need to explore.

As a teenager, I danced. A Lot. I danced like a wild and demented pixie, with a shameless joy in my body, and the movement of my body that I also felt when swimming, and playing musical instruments, but not in much that involved other people. A lot of the time I felt really awkward in my body. That stayed with me, and the times of feeling good in my body reduced.

I started dancing again this summer. Awkward on my feet at first, not confident of my balance, and trying to work with a sore, stiff body that couldn’t dance like I used to, and needing to totally re-learn how to move. It was not easy re-starting – I felt very exposed and it also meant dealing with all the emotions tangled up in my messy relationship with my own form. My dancing was not what I wanted it to be, and I accepted it, and did what I could.

I’ve put in a lot of time – primarily working on my balance, so that I can be easier on my feet. Working with each part of the body in turn to find out what can move, and how to move. Working out how far I can push in terms of energy use, how not to jar myself, how to work slowly when the music is fast. I re-learned that one of the things dancing does for me is to give me a space to express and process the kind of complex emotions that cannot be dealt with just by thinking about them.

Dancing in spaces with other people, my confidence improved. I started feeling safer, and acceptable. Part of the block to going back to dance had been a sense that my body would not be acceptable to other people – too fat, too awkward, too ugly, too ungainly… I have a lot of body-image issues and tend to project them, imagining everyone else is going to see me as I do, and as a few people in my life have been very explicit about seeing me. But, I can go to a space where people dance and not face shaming, humiliation or anything like that. I’ve found accepting, nurturing space. I’m learning how to feel acceptable.

As a consequence of this, I’ve got easier in my own body, more willing to experiment and push my own boundaries with how I move, and it has done me considerable good.

Then, at the last session, a magic thing happened. I pushed just a little bit harder, and found that in small bursts, I could dance like some sort of demented pixie. It doesn’t matter that I can’t now do that into the wee small hours, it doesn’t matter that I have to do little flurries and take breaks – because for minutes at a time, I can still dance with my manic pixie self, and feel something like what I felt as a much younger human.

I can’t change my history. I am only going to get older and weirder with this cranky body of mine. But I can still dance.